That message was hammered home by the revelations of last week. The week’s major news story — the one that has made impeachment inevitable — is that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation of Joe Biden. The president’s own words, in the rough transcript released by the White House, convict him of two offenses against U.S. interests. First, he encouraged a foreign country to interfere in a U.S. election despite a federal law that makes it a crime to “knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation.” Second, apparently as a pressure tactic, he held up military aid for Ukraine that was authorized by Congress to help this front-line ally defend itself against Russian aggression.
Whether it can be proved that Trump acted criminally (and it will be hard to put a value on the campaign aid that Trump wanted from Ukraine), he deserves to be impeached because he violated his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He subordinated the public’s interest — in holding free and fair elections and ensuring that foreign aid is used for the purposes intended by Congress — to his own personal interest in getting reelected.
Trump acted with similar disregard for the national interest during and after Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. Though former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump was part of a criminal conspiracy with Moscow, there remains ample evidence of his willingness to encourage Russian interference. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said on July 27, 2016, encouraging Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. The Mueller report revealed that Russian hackers tried to do that just hours later.
Trump has often denied that the Russians were responsible for the hacking of the DNC — most infamously when he was standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. That this may not be entirely for show is evident from Trump’s eagerness to get Ukraine to investigate the computer security firm CrowdStrike, which first found Russia’s fingerprints all over the hack. Trump seems to subscribe to a right-wing conspiracy theory that the hack was an “inside job.”
But consistency is certainly not Trump’s hobgoblin. On Friday, The Post reported that Trump “told two senior Russian officials in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries.” This is highly damning, because it shows Trump conceding — and condoning — Russian complicity. Trump is thereby giving the Russians implicit permission to strike again. Once again, Trump is placing his own interest above the interests of the country.
This is part of a pattern with Trump — and undoubtedly a big reason, as the CIA whistleblower revealed, Trump aides placed transcripts of his conversations with several world leaders in a computer system meant for only the most sensitive secrets. CNN reported that the restricted transcripts include — surprise, surprise — Trump’s talks with Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
What the White House tapes were to the Nixon White House, the transcripts of these phone calls are for the Trump White House. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that we can get them the way that special prosecutor Leon Jaworski got access to President Richard M. Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape: by subpoenaing it. In 1974, a unanimous Supreme Court overrode Nixon’s claims of “executive privilege” in the interests of “due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.” Nixon resigned 16 days later.
Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe tells me the current Supreme Court “wouldn’t regard U.S. v. Nixon as controlling,” both because the court is now more conservative and because (unlike in 1974) there is no ongoing criminal prosecution of presidential aides that requires the documents. But Tribe suggests that the transcripts may come out anyway: “Now that impeachment is all but inevitable, the sinking ship will spring one leak after another.”
There is, to be sure, a legitimate interest in preserving the confidentiality of presidential phone calls. But there is an even stronger interest in preserving the integrity of the presidency. So, White House aides, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the transcripts that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press — and, more important, by posterity. Now is the time to act like John Dean — not like H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.